Creating F THE ENCHANTED LETTER Part 1

Bill Willingham at the Eisner Awards, 2009

Like my last print with Mark Buckingham, the idea for this one began at the San Diego Comicon in 2008, at a dinner with some of the creative staff of FABLES. I had published my A and B prints with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman at that point, and told the story of how I had accidentally embarked on a series of alphabetical signed prints when the first two came in beginning with those letters. Talk went around as to who I might call on for later ones, and both Buckingham and Bill Willingham, the creator and writer of FABLES, were interested. Bill said to me, “I’d like to do something for the letter F, it’s my favorite.” I said that sounded like a good idea, and filed it away for future reference, as I knew it would be some time before I got to F.

Fast forward to February of 2010, with my E print, EACH BEAST AT THE FEAST just going on sale. I sent a complimentary copy to Bill with a note saying, “You’re next!” with a few requirements and suggestions. I asked Bill if he’d be able to have something written for me by the end of March. This request fell into a void of deafening silence, as often happens when everyone is busy working on other things. In early April I started emailing Bill about the print, and still heard nothing, which worried me. I wondered if my emails were not getting through. Finally on April 13, Bill replied, apologizing, saying he’d been focused on finishing a novel, and not checking email. He promised to get going on something for me, adding:

“My idea so far is to do something along the lines of F is the letter for starting something magical, as in Fiction, Fantasy, Fantastic, Fabulous, Fairy Tale, and Fables of course. It’s also Frightening and so on.”

We set a new deadline for the end of April, which came and went, but finally on May 5th, Bill sent me his text, a rhymed poem that began,

F the enchanted letter is Fantasy and Fable.

The Fogged road to Fairyland, if you’re Fearless and able.

Bill wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted, or good enough, “considering what’s gone before,” he wrote. This has been a problem all along in my print series, for me as well, with such an impressive beginning from Alan Moore, but I thought what Bill sent was generally fine. I did think it need some tweaking to improve the flow of the poem, so I went through it and made some suggested changes. Bill’s submission also didn’t seem to really come to a conclusion, and I thought it needed a little more at the end, so I suggested two final lines that might be added. I wasn’t sure how Bill would feel about all that, but I sent it to him, and he liked what I had done, writing, “You made my stuff look lovely. All suggested changes are fine with me, including the final lines. Thank you.”

So, the text was in, and it was time to start thinking about how to approach the design. Most of my prints represent a combination of art and lettering, along the lines of illuminated manuscripts and gospels created in the middle ages, but of course much simpler. This time I thought I’d try something closer to that mediaeval model. For one thing, I’d been wanting to try using parchment-style paper for one of these, and for another, the text is full of images, suggesting several small pictures rather than one large one, as I did for the Gaiman poem, and that sounded like an illuminated manuscript, or as one might say, text decorated with small pictures.

I started off looking at images from The Book of Kells, (example above) and the Lindisfarne Gospels , probably the most famous of the mediaeval manuscripts. Brilliant work, but I needed something simpler, more manageable and readable, and I wanted to avoid the Celtic knotwork decoration prevalent there, as I’d used some of that on DRAWING THE SWORD, my print with J.H. Williams III. The Celtic feel seemed a good direction, though.

Years ago someone sent me some photocopies from a book about the lettering in the mediaeval manuscripts. I don’t know whose work this is, but would be happy to give it credit if any of you recognize it. On this page there’s examples and analysis of several letters, including F, and I used it as a place to start. In addition to the first few F shapes, which I liked, I noted the spiral decorations on some of the E shapes. I’ve always liked the combination of curved Celtic letters and spirals. Here’s a logo I designed in 1992 using them:

So, with that in mind, I doodled around with F shapes until I came to this one:

This and all following images © Todd Klein and Bill Willingham, except as noted.

That became my starting point for the large initial capital F that would begin the poem. And since there was no separate title, I’d do the first line entirely in curly capitals, then the rest in upper and lower case, emphasizing all the capital F’s in Bill’s poem. Seemed like it would work, but before I began on the actual piece, I did a small test:

That looked okay, so I went to an 11 by 17-inch piece of art paper and did a complete but rough layout of the poem in pencil:

This was going in the right direction, but needed some changes. First, my plan to put the creator names at the top wasn’t working for me, it made for an awkward read, so I thought I’d move them to the bottom. Next, in thinking about where art could fit, I felt I should move the first and third stanzas to the right to leave spaces on the left for art, while keeping the middle stanza as is, with room on the right for art. Finally, the second line in the layout above is really the remainder of the first line of the poem, so I thought it should also be in all capitals, but perhaps a little smaller. I erased everything but the initial F and started again, this time pencilling more carefully.

Here’s the tightly pencilled poem in near final form. I added more decorations to the initial F, too, avoiding Celtic knotwork, and using instead a curly decorative style more like that seen in the late 1800s, when steel pen nibs first came into common use. Here are some examples:

From the Daniel T. Ames Penmanship book of 1883, no apparent copyright.

Again, mine weren’t as complex as these, but in a similar vein. For the regular letters, I thought I would use a constant-weight line utilizing my Castell TG1 technical drawing pens. For the capital F’s I’d use a variable width line, adding width to parts of the strokes, also the plan for the first two lines and the initial capitals of the second and third stanzas. While the impression would be of a wedge-tipped pen, I’d actually do it all with tech pens, avoiding having to switch pen types. The outlined shapes in the layout show where I planned to add art, but I decided to go ahead and ink the lettering first, then do the art after.

Here’s the poem inked. As always, I’m working printed size, and would later do lots of tweaking, clean-up and adjustments to this lettering on the computer, but I was happy with what I had so far. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was the column of curly decorations left of the second stanza, so I didn’t ink that, and would replace it with something else later. The print was coming together, but now I needed to focus on the decorative art. I’ll continue with that in PART TWO.

If you’d like, you can read about creating my other SIGNED PRINTS. And information about buying this print is HERE.

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